Thought lost for eighty years Ernst Lubitsch’s silent epic The Loves of Pharaoh, originally released in 1922, is now playing as part of the wonderful ‘Treasures’ strand in this year’s London Film Festival. Compiled from multiple prints the film has undergone an impressive restoration by the Bundesarchiv, The Munich Film Museum and George Eastman House, including the addition of stills and text to fill in for scenes that are still missing. These do not, thankfully, detract too much from a fluid viewing experience and are certainly essential in fully appreciating the story on screen. Work has also been done to restore the film’s original tints, which for the most part follow a stylistic logic, and the original score by Eduard Kunneke has been re-recorded and provides a rousing accompaniment to this rather bombastic affair.
It is obvious when watching The Loves of the Pharaoh that a lot of work was needed in order to improve on the clearly damaged material that the restoration teams began with but this has been sensitively done and whilst it may be obvious to those familiar with digital restoration as to where the most significant changes have been made, the signs are far from obvious. Once the prints were combined to make the film we see today there was still over five years of work done in order to painstakingly restore a film that in many places was even missing sprocket holes. Restoration work that was reportedly even more difficult than that done for the 2011 version of Metropolis.
What we are left with is a sumptuous film, that while not necessarily one of Lubitsch’s best works is still an engaging yarn told with skill and in an entertaining fashion.
The story of an Egyptian Pharaoh who falls in love with a slave girl, The Loves of Pharaoh begins with the introduction of all the key players, from the titular Pharaoh Amenes (Emil Jannings) to the slave girl Theonis (Dagny Servaes) and her soon to be true love Ramphis (Harry Liedtke). Amenes is supposed to marry Makeda (Lyda Salmonova), the daughter of an Ethiopian king, in order to form a union between Egypt and Ethiopia but quickly he falls in love with one of Makeda’s slaves, Theonis.
In a scene that exemplifies Lubitsch’s wonderful grasp of the minor details, Amenes tries to tempt Theonis with the same necklace that Makeda tried to tempt Amenes with. Theonis is a rather modern kind of woman though and not so shallow as to be convinced with trinkets and baubles. She soon becomes enamoured instead with Ramphis, the son of the Pahroah’s architect. Further complications ensue, battles are fought and secret passages used as the film flies towards a rather unexpected climax, and one that was altered when the film first played in America.
Removed from temporal specificity, The Loves of Pharaoh does often come across a little simplistic and occasionally rather frothy and lightweight but there are enough really great scenes, the aforementioned one in which Amenes woos Theonis for instance, to elevate the film beyond mere spectacle. As an entertaining spectacle though The Loves of Pharaoh is a solid film and its easy to see why after this, his last film in Germany, Lubitsch made such a successful transition to entertaining the world with Hollywood pictures.